Missouri Pivots as Road To Tomorrow Project Flounders

The Show-Me-State focuses on new technologies, revenue-generating initiatives

  • Missouri in 2015 launched the Road To Tomorrow in order to promote transit innovation, but ended the project after failing to secure funding
  • Transit officials have started rethinking transit revenue with an eye toward being able to fund transportation improvements and technology in the future
  • One project, known as the Heartland Hyperloop, could still be procured in the state

The state of Missouri is rethinking its approach to transportation infrastructure development following the failure of its Road to Tomorrow project.

“We recognize that there is a shift underway to hybrids and electric vehicles which could mean a miles-per-gallon based vehicle registration fee makes more sense for state revenues but it is still in the exploratory phase,” Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) spokesperson Michael Demers told Icons of Infrastructure

Missouri in 2015 launched the “Road To Tomorrow” project in order to make the I-70 corridor between Kansas City and St. Louis a transit innovation area. State transportation officials were specifically looking to implement a Smart Highway pilot project that would provide glowing mile markers to drivers. Ideas such as solar panels that could be placed on the highway to generate renewable energy even as traffic rolled over them had also been considered.

Notably, the solar roadways relied on federal grants Idaho-based startup Solar Roadways had received for transportation research, as well as a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to cover its business costs.

The state solicited new technology proposals from private companies all over the world and, in the project’s first year received roughly 350 submissions. The next year, Missouri announced that it had partnered with Solar Roadways to cover an undetermined length of Route 66 with solar panels residents could drive over.  The deal was later put on indefinite hold after state officials began to question whether the company would be able to deliver on its deployment milestones.

The contract was ultimately dissolved in 2017. Solar Roadways in a statement attributed the contract’s dissolution to a “variety of complex, red-tape factors,” but did not elaborate.

Missouri also had difficulty recruiting companies that wanted to pay the state to use its right of way, even if that meant being able to showcase their technology. Demers said that state transportation officials struggled to find a “unifying revenue generation model”. He added that, without a funding source at the state or federal level, MoDOT’s ideas pipeline has largely dried up.

Hyperloop and telecommunications

Still, there are a few remnants of the Road to Tomorrow which could bring transportation improvements to the Show Me State.

In 2017, MoDOT along with the St. Louis Regional Chamber, the KC Tech Council, the University of Missouri System, and the Missouri Innovation Center in Columbia formed the Missouri Hyperloop Coalition with the goal of determining whether the accelerated transportation corridor envisioned by Elon Musk could work in the Heartland.

“We recognize that there is a shift underway to hybrids and electric vehicles which could mean a miles-per-gallon based vehicle registration fee makes more sense for state revenues but it is still in the exploratory phase,”
— Michael Demers, MoDOT spokesperson

Data obtained from a roughly $1.5 million feasibility study showed that a hyperloop could operate along I-70. The projected cost for the 250-mile stretch that would connect Kansas City and St. Louis would be approximately $7-10 billion.

Once complete hyperloop users could make the circuit in 30 minutes. However, there are still some hurdles to the hyperloop’s becoming a reality, including the cost. The $7-10 billion price tag is just for the track and doesn’t include additional costs for passenger portals, facilities or maintenance. Additionally, Virgin Hyperloop One, the private company currently working on developing the hyperloop portals has noted that it will likely not have a working prototype until 2020.

The Missouri Hyperloop Coalition has said it is reaching out to the private sector to get a sense for what funding and revenue opportunities might be available if the project were to go forward.

Telecommunications companies have also offered small value-added transportation projects on top of their payments into the state for use of the right of way. Many of these companies operate as “neutral hosts” meaning that when they set up the wiring and host boxes that power their networks they will also provide limited additional services like improved transit information or connectivity along the right of ways.

Rethinking transportation revenue

Though Missouri’s Road To Tomorrow project ultimately ended up being a road to nowhere MODOT is taking a page from what states such as Oregon are doing when it comes to rethinking transportation revenue.

Oregon lawmakers in 2017 passed the Keep Oregon Moving Act which increases the fuels tax and vehicle title and registration fees over a seven year period. The annual registration fees and title fees will be tiered based on vehicle fuel efficiency in order to ensure that more efficient vehicles that pay little fuels tax contribute their fair share for use of the roads.

Missouri doesn’t have a fuel tax, but it could increase registration fees in a similar fashion. Demers said. He added that such a move could help improve MoDOT’s funding and expand the potential for transportation projects in the future.

Demers also noted that the authority is also open to unsolicited proposals from transportation technology providers, as long as they include a revenue component.

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